He’s been paralysed for 22 years – now the same thing has happened to his brother

2018-03-29 12:41
PHOTO: Lubabalo Lesolle

PHOTO: Lubabalo Lesolle

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The brothers used to do everything together. They loved playing ball games, hiked the gruelling Otter trail and shared a passion for cycling.

But 22 years ago life as adrenaline junkies Gawie and Attie Conradie knew it came crashing down when Gawie was paralysed by a hijacker’s bullet. And in a cruel twist of fate Attie (51) recently had a cycling accident and was also left paralysed.

“What are the odds?” Gawie (48) says, shaking his head. “What are the odds this could happen to two people in one family?

“I wonder if I wasn’t meant to become paralysed just so I could help my brother one day.”

Attie’s accident occurred in November. The computer programmer from Cape Town was cycling to work when he collided with a stationary truck parked in the cycling lane. He broke his neck – and like his younger brother he was told he’d never be able to walk again.

Attie recently started rehabilitation after two operations to remove splintered bone from his neck. The news his brother would be subjected to the same fate as him shocked Gawie to the core.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard he was paralysed. I saw his helmet – there was only a scratch on it. He probably was going no faster than 30km an hour,” says Gawie, who lives in Centurion, Gauteng.

“And then you start with all the ‘why’ questions.”

He wrestled with the same questions after the bullet robbed him of his mobility two decades ago. Gawie was 25 at the time. A group of his friends had run out of petrol and were stuck on the side of the road in Johannesburg.

Gawie was delivering a container of fuel when hijackers descended on them. The attackers opened fire before the friends could flee and Gawie was shot under his arm and in his shoulder blade.

The bullet narrowly missed his heart but left him paralysed from his ribs down.

“The worst was the initial shock that I’d never again be the same person. I felt like I had a rock in the pit of my stomach,” Gawie says.

But he has a vital message for his brother now. “Attie, you’re alive and that’s what everyone who loves you is most grateful for.

“The bad news is you’ll never walk again, but the good news is you’re always going to get the best parking spots in town.

Gawie has rearranged his life for maximum ease. Everything in his flat is easily within reach and his car is custom-fitted so the brakes and accelerator can be hand-controlled.

He’s capable of getting out of his car and into his wheelchair with impressive speed.

“The most important thing is still maintaining independence,” he says. He’s had a few serious relationships in his life but is unmarried and lives alone. But he’s not lonely, he says – he’s been playing wheelchair basketball for years and regularly goes out with friends.

“They sometimes say they forget I’m paralysed.”

By day he enjoys the company of his colleagues at the FNB offices where he works as an accountant. His parents, Gawie Snr and Henriette, live in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, and his other siblings are spread all over the country.

After his discharge from hospital and rehabilitation he spent time living with Attie and his wife, Rieta, in Cape Town. And Gawie is here for Attie now.

“Nothing can prepare you for any of this but I know how Attie feels. My best advice to him is not to give in to self-pity – oh, and always make sure you have your catheter with you!” He regularly visits his brother and sister-in-law.

“Luckily Attie has people who can help him. I don’t believe in coincidence – everything happens for a reason. Rieta is a physiotherapist and specialises in rehabilitation. And everything else he’s too shy to ask her he can ask me.”

Thanks to Gawie’s regular visits Attie’s children, Carla (17), Ané (15) and Zanri (8), are also used to having someone in a wheelchair around the house. After 22 years, Gawie’s wheelchair is like a limb. But at first it wasn’t easy.

“I struggled to get over obstacles. You need to constantly think: can my wheelchair make it through that gap?”

He runs his hand through his hair. “People assume my first wish would be to walk again. But no: firstly it’s to have control of my stomach and bladder again, and secondly it’s to be sexually active again. To walk is fifth or sixth on that list – ask any paralysed man.”

Gawie wears a catheter and other essential equipment in a brown bag on his lap. “Your body gets into a routine. I know when to put in my catheter depending on how much I’ve had to eat or drink.

“Every five days or so my stomach ‘goes’. Attie will also need a catheter. I hope he gets full control of his hands back so he can do it himself.”

Attie has yet to regain the use of his arms. Gawie admits he mourned the loss of freedom of movement and the physical activity that was once his life blood. “You need to grieve for a while,” he says.

“I think Attie is going to miss cycling the most. He cycled every day of his life. I started about three years before my accident and years later I’d still cry when I saw people cycling along the road.”

Gawie shows us a road bike hanging in his garage. “This is the last bike Attie bought,” he says. “He wanted to have one here so he could cycle when he came to visit.”

Attie will now learn who his true friends are, Gawie adds. “You lose a lot of people but also realise who’s going to stick around.”

Any other advice for Attie? “If you and Rieta are lying in bed and you want the window closed, get up and do it yourself. Even fetch your own water. For your sanity and hers.

“Don’t keep your mouth shut. I saw people in the hospital touching his head. I told him to tell them he doesn’t like it. I hate it when people push my chair and I tell them as much.”

Attie’s friends also need to stop telling him things such as, “Oh, everything is going to be okay” or “You’ll walk again”.

“Be straight with him and ask when you’re curious about something.”

From his home in the Mother City Attie tells us he’s grateful to be alive. “It’s so difficult because I don’t know what the future holds and what will be possible for me going forward. I miss every little thing – having my first cup of coffee of the day and dunking my biscuit in it, packing my daughter’s bags for school.

“Picking out my cycling gear and putting it on. Kissing my wife in the morning and hugging her before I cycle to work. Showering, sending emails, hurrying between meetings.

“Pouring two glasses of wine for dinner and lying close to my wife’s back at night. And I haven’t even mentioned anything about our family and the adventures we’ve had.”

Attie believes Gawie’s disability and his wife’s experience will help him adjust to what lies ahead.

Gawie will visit his brother again when he’s discharged from rehab. “I can’t wait for us to visit our favourite seafood restaurant,” he says, “and hopefully pop a few wheelies while we’re there.”

Read more on:    health

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